Let There Be Light…and Life!
(Swedenborg’s Birthday Celebration Sunday)
Rev. Kit Billings
January 29, 2006
Genesis 1: 1-13
Heavenly Secrets n. 692
Just as man's idea of heaven is very general, so hazy as to be almost none at all, so too is his idea of hell. He is like hut-dwellers in a forest who can have a mental picture of the world beyond, but do not know of its empires or kingdoms, still less its forms of government, and even less the communities or life of those communities. Until they know these things their idea of the world is bound to be very general, such as to be scarcely any at all. The same applies to man's ideas of heaven and of hell. Yet there are countless phenomena in both places, infinitely more than those existing on any planet. How countless they are becomes clear from the mere consideration that just as nobody ever has in mind exactly the same heaven as anybody else, so nobody ever has in mind exactly the same hell. And yet all souls who have ever lived in the world since creation began go to those places and are gathered together.
This morning, as we worship and glorify the Lord, and while we learn together of God’s divine truth in His Holy Word so as to apply it to our lives, we also have the joy of celebrating the birthday of a very special man, Emanuel Swedenborg, whose theological writing and service toward God ultimately inspired our church to be born. Yes, as we read on the back of our worship bulletins, our New Church Christian faith perspective and framework stems from the Bible as illuminated by the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg. In short, New Church or Swedenborgian theology is a great example of God’s awesome command within creation, “Let there be Light!” As this faith perspective expresses, that command of our Creator has its first importance within the spiritual realm, where our inner life now lives. Thus, it is a passion of God’s that His Light of truth, understanding and spiritual insight be shed in the universe, and “…it was good.”
That primal and powerful will of the Divine has always been afoot in creation, so much so that natural light is a basic part of the engine of natural life everywhere. One reason, among several, that I enjoy celebrating Swedenborg’s birthday is because his theology (which he felt was solely the blessing of the Lord that he might grasp it) is about people seeing! It’s about us looking with adventure into the deeper degrees of life, and not letting ourselves be blinded by narrow-minded interpretations of things. It’s about us being open to the spiritual Light from God as it shines into the heavenly realm and learning how the angels see and understand things, recognizing that it is the Lord’s will that we see spiritually past the outward veils of life…past the outer appearance of things and into a level where life really happens, where salvation churns and develops.
Our theology, the theology of the Lord’s New Church, is found within the pages of the Bible, but only when people are willing to use their spiritual eyes as well as their natural eyes to see it. Today, at this point in history, there are many who recognize that the Bible was written in a way that is not simply literalistic—that within many of the literal stories there have vast depths and treasures of spiritual truth and wisdom. But no one as far as I can tell has been blessed with the oceanic depth of insight and perception as Swedenborg. This means, of course, that God has been and will continue to reach and inspire the life and understanding of countless people, by means of myriads of spiritual leaders and giants. But I believe that Swedenborg was very, very good at what he did, and his contributions to humanity accurately classify him as Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed it in his book, Representative Men, one of special significance. The challenging and devoted spiritual work of Swedenborg, his contributions to Christian and universal spiritual truth and insight, have landed him as one of the colossal souls of our planet. His contributions to science were also immense. He was included in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s great book, Representative Men, and is now being recognized as one of Sweden’s greatest scientists, poets, mystics and expounders of God’s Word. But I believe what made him truly “great” was his humility—he saw himself purely as a servant of God. As a young man he was full of ego and self-importance. But after his spiritual awakening, he became as humble as a lamb, and only wanted the Lord to receive honor and glory for every accomplishment gained.
The only reason I can see to celebrate Swedenborg’s birthday every year, which I enjoy doing by the way, is that he had an amazingly challenging mission, to record and explain the vast mansion of Heaven, and help us to regain the core and vital substance of who and what God is and what His Word reveals. There are few challenges in life as important, as far as I am concerned, and I have learned for myself that Swedenborg accomplished that mission. New Church theology pierces through the veil of traditional Christian theology and opens the seeker into a vast landscape very much akin to what happened in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, written by C.S. Lewis. Toward the opening of that marvelous story, four London children are sent to a professor’s country home in order for protection during World War II. While feeling quite bored, one of them discovers a great secret! The one tells the four, and they choose to explore; they enter this magic wardrobe upstairs in the attic that leads to a mystical land called Narnia. Narnia to those children was wondrous indeed, full of talking animals and amazing powers. Emanuel Swedenborg’s theology, which spans some thirty books, takes the reader into the very realms of the afterlife because as Swedenborg explains in the opening pages of his work Heaven and Hell, it served the Lord God of the universe to reveal to humanity the truth about what spiritual reality actually consists of, and therefore what we are all grappling with in this world. In addition, it was part of the Second Coming of the Lord to open humanity’s understanding of the truth of the afterlife, which clears up the apathy-inducing fog of unclarity, which my opening quote from the Writings expresses.
For those whose minds are open to seeing into and past the veils of outer reality, as well as beyond the literal sense of God’s Holy Word into also its inner depths, the Lord’s New Church stands. In this Light, those with ears that are open and with eyes ready to see this special Light, a Light that Helen Keller felt was what helped her greatly to truly see, people are blessed to understand many great spiritual ideas, but never with a God of wrath and punishment looming above them, instead one of infinite and eternal Love and Wisdom. In this spiritual Light, we are invited to understand such helpful and inspiring things, such as that the Lord’s Kingdom of Heaven is here with us…all around and inside of us…if we are willing to open our eyes and spiritual senses and feel a glimmer of its presence (which by the way children easily see and feel as by the magical and wondrous feeling and energy of life within even inanimate objects like rocks, and even more so within animate creatures, plants and flowers and trees). This, of course, was one of God’s missions while incarnate in Jesus Christ. Jesus proclaimed, “The kingdom of God has come near! Repent, and believe the good news.”
The problem or difficulty is, however, that given what we adults typically wrestle with, this seemingly simple invitation can easily be or feel not so easy. This is what Swedenborg was pointing to in the quote I began my sermon with this morning, revealing that our inherited spiritual condition (which involves a selfish natural mind and will surrounding a beautifully serene and open soulfulness within us) inclines us toward looking at life and reality as though we are living in a small, simple hut in some forest, which veils us from seeing the great and fantastic kingdom of God with all of its wondrousness, brilliance, helpfulness and grandeur. Given that we tend in this life, before a fair amount of spiritual growth has occurred, to enjoy life in our little hut and small perspective within our particular jungle, it can be easy to miss out on the great commandment from our Creator who says, “Let there be Light!” Let your mind be opened toward seeing into and through the veils of external appearances and shadows, and into the deeper structure of reality and God’s kingdom.
Let us explore briefly just two of many scriptural examples of this, as we look now at our lessons in Genesis and in Matthew.
By way of introduction, let me share that on Sunday, February 12 we shall be joining in with hundreds of Christian churches in America celebrating “Evolution Sunday,” which honors that science and religion are mutually supportive gifts from the Lord, and that the theory of evolution given by Darwin has every bit of importance within the classrooms of America. In short, God’s creation and evolutionary development on earth can easily go hand-in-hand. This fabulous endeavor began as the “Clergy Letter Project” and has grown to gain more than 10,000 signatures from diverse Christian clergy in America, and yes, my name is on that list. At any rate, the online letter that thousands of us clergy men and women have signed states that God’s Word is not always meant to be read literalistically, quote: “Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible -- the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark -- convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.”
In the light of the New Church way of looking at the Story of Creation in Genesis, using our spiritual eyes that Helen Keller discussed so well, this fabulous beginning of God’s Word reveals great truth indeed. For example, that the Divine is the only Creator of life and that He made both the spiritual and natural worlds. It reveals the Lord’s joy in His creation and that He delights in a vast diversity of life. And, that human beings hold a very special significance in creation while also being within an intimate relationship with other forms and life-forms. But now, this great spiritual and timeless myth plunges us into that magical wardrobe from Narnia, so to speak, inviting us to look at its inner meaning, where endless insights await. This fantastic beginning of God’s Word reveals more than two levels of meaning. On the “humanity level” or degree, it reveals that we are all created with a spiritual and natural degrees of our humanity, and that the natural, more conscious level typically starts out quite “formless and void,” in need of enlightenment. This story reminds us that it is a strong inclination within this natural world for the people in it to be unenlightened, to be living in those “huts” and forests which are blind to the greatness of God and His kingdom, and of our tremendous potential as God’s children. On a large scale this great parable known as “The Creation Story” paints a fabulous picture of the typical pattern of spiritual development that each human being must go through on our way toward discovering our deeper potential, our deeper humanity, our full salvation. Notice how it begins by revealing that we are never alone from God’s presence, and that there is a positive movement forward being shown. It also teaches us how careful we should be at drawing conclusions about humanity when most of us here are so very much a “work in progress.” The helpfulness of a great mystic, like Swedenborg, who was given years of experience of seeing the wonderful end toward which all good-hearted and faith-oriented people are heading, what we look and feel like in Heaven after growing into an angelic human spirit, is noteworthy.
Indeed, it can be helpful to read a clear description of one person’s experience of what God’s Heaven is really like and how beautiful and loving its inhabitants are, who walk with us as we traverse life in this natural world. Likewise that Hell is real also—it has a road of life in this world too, which is built by self-centeredness, ego and shallowness.
On the personal level, this parable teaches that the movement of our spiritual growth moves us from ignorance and formlessness into change, Light, and movement into greater forms of lifefulness, development and complexity. I am struck by the whole movement toward expansion, variety, diversity, color and the ability within creation for new life to be born and also of more and more usefulness to expand. As this story describes the growing and expanding human consciousness and awareness, it shows the beauty and power of God’s wisdom being seeds that are planted in our minds, yielding new awareness and new fruitfulness as spiritual charity and kindness take root and develop in our lives. And we are also reminded that the ever-present reality of spiritual daytime and spiritual nighttime rotate together, that our growth and development shall be marked by spiritual challenges, temptation and struggle leading into new life. The whole story revolves around an expansion, growth and movement toward greater and greater humanity developing within us—what our theology discusses to be God’s love, truth and power coming to life inside of the individual when we choose to be open to the Lord and the blessings only the Divine can bring.
Indeed, God is divinely Human, and we are born to inherit a finite humanness that flows from and with the Spirit of God growing within us. The seven-stage process of spiritual regeneration depicted symbolically in Genesis is the only means through which the Lord’s promise, our inheritance from Him, may fully develop. As Christ said, “…he who endures to the end shall be saved.” (Mtt. 24:13) Only those who choose to engage and embrace life on God’s terms, as we find so clearly shining in the Word of God, wind up finding and wanting Heaven after death.
Moving on here into our Matthew lesson, let me summarize it by sharing that similar to the inner meaning of Genesis 1, the Lord wants all of us to understand that we are endowed with some unique degree of skill, knowledge and ability in life. The Lord is the landowner who gives us, His servants, His goods on loan so to speak. “Talents” is a large sum of money, which through spiritual correspondence points toward the truth that we each are wealthy in some amount with spiritual knowledge and understanding—this is what makes a person “wealthy” in God’s eyes. And, that the Lord gives us our knowledge from His Word and other spiritual resources so that we may use them for serving His will and our fellow neighbor, our family, and our friends. Just as God expects us to make use of our natural or worldly monies and treasures, expanding them into greater forms of usefulness, so too we are blessed with the expectation (with the spiritual law) that Heaven revolves around—being USEFUL with what the Lord gives us. When we choose to hide the wealth of knowledge we are gaining, and not use it for the expansion of God’s kingdom on earth, then we spiritually dry up and wither on the vine. But as we choose to make USE of the expanding knowledge we gain, whether it be on a simple or on a complex level of perception, then we spiritually “have” God’s life in us. “For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
In this same chapter in Matthew, the Lord did well to drill home the three key levels of our involvement in His life and power. The Parable of The Ten Virgins describes our need to grow in life on earth in God’s love (for Him, others and ourselves); the Parable of The Talents engages our need to make use of the learning and knowledge we gain as spiritual wealth from the Lord; and Christ’s comparison of “sheep and goats” drives home the vital role of our choosing to actually live out righteously the way of life the Lord teaches. These are the three essentials of the Lord’s New Church, which He taught and revealed in His first coming, but humanity chose to largely ignore. And so in His Second Coming revealing His Light in an even clearer and more overt way, the Lord sheds His truth upon the world, again professing, “Let there be Light!”
May your ever-deepening, personal, and positive movement forward into the Lord’s Light and Life bring with it these treasured words from the Lord’s own heart, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done.” Amen.